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stages of a crisis
Emergency Management Mar 31, 2022

The 4 Stages of a Crisis and How to Navigate Them

A crisis might feel unpredictable, but they all follow the same pattern. Learn how to navigate critical events by preparing for the four stages of a crisis.

Navigating a crisis can be incredibly intimidating for many business owners. In fact, 95 percent of business leaders recognize that their ability to manage a crisis needs improvement. So, how can organizations better prepare themselves to react to the wide range of crises, both natural and manmade, that can affect their people and operations?

One of the best strategies is to break it down into steps or stages. While a crisis might seem like an unpredictable situation, there is actually a formula that all crises follow. Emergency events—no matter the situation—tend to have the same, four-stage pattern.

Consider an earthquake or other natural disaster. While we may think of these disasters as one-time emergency events, these events are actually composed of four distinct stages. And from pre-crisis through recovery, each of these stages requires a different response. By using the phases of a crisis as the foundation for your disaster response planning efforts, you’ll be able to more successfully confront less predictable crises.

In this article, we’ll explore the four stages of a crisis and share strategies for navigating each stage to keep employees safe and maintain business continuity. We’ll also share crisis communication best practices, including how and what to communicate during each phase.

The 4 Stages of a Crisis

Graphic depicting the 4 stages of a crisis

While crises can span a huge range of potential scenarios, PwC research reveals that one of the keys to business resilience is developing a crisis-agnostic response plan. This can be achieved by taking an all-hazards approach when developing your crisis management plan—and it’s essential to creating a resilient business that can withstand any type of disaster.

While there are multiple crisis management models out there, the four stages of a crisis identified below are among the most popular:

1. Pre-crisis stage (prodromal phase)

This first stage occurs before the crisis itself hits. In many cases, this pre-crisis stage will be like any other day. Some crises—like active shooter events, cyberattacks, or natural disasters—can happen at any time, without any prior warning. For other events, your crisis management team may be able to pick up on warning signs. Crises like extreme weather events or transportation disruptions may bring with them an element of forewarning, such as weather warnings or press and social media coverage.

Consider this a preparatory stage—where you are on the lookout for potential crises that may affect your company. If warning signs are identified, this is when steps to reduce the impact of the crisis—or prevent it entirely—should be taken.

What to do during the pre-crisis stage: Preparedness and mitigation

If you don’t yet have a crisis management plan, now is the time to develop one—as a priority. Taking an all-hazards approach to emergency planning and developing a robust, crisis-agnostic plan is the best way to ensure you’re ready for any type of event. What will your crisis communication strategy be if you need to communicate urgent information? How will you stay connected to your employees to ensure their safety and well-being? Understanding the answers to these questions now—before the crisis—can ensure you’re not left scrambling when disaster strikes.

At this stage, any organization should also be proactively monitoring potential threats. A solid risk mitigation plan that incorporates regular threat intelligence reports can help you quickly discover potential threats that may impact where employees live, work, or travel. Through active monitoring, for example, you may identify civil unrest in a country your employees are due to visit for business. Deciding to cancel or modify their trip could stop this event from turning into a crisis for your business entirely.

This phase is also the time to create emergency kits, containing whatever items you’ve identified as important. If you already have your kits prepared, check on them to make sure any items with expiration dates are replenished as necessary.

You can also incorporate drills and tabletop exercises into this stage. With active shooters posing an increasing threat within the U.S., for example, drills and training on strategies like “Run, Hide, Fight” can help reduce the risk of injuries should an active shooter incident occur. Simulation exercises present an opportunity to ensure all employees understand what actions they need to take in the event of an emergency.

2. Crisis stage (acute phase)

This is the point that your organization starts to notice the first signs of a crisis unfolding. Also known as the acute phase, this is the point of no return—you can no longer prevent the crisis from happening. Now your focus needs to turn to risk assessment so that you can rapidly respond and mitigate the event’s impact. While often the most intense phase, the acute stage is generally the shortest of the four stages.

What to do during the crisis stage: Assess, activate, and alert

During this acute phase, your first goal is to assess the situation, with three main questions to answer:

  • What is the specific threat or crisis?
  • Who is involved or at risk?
  • Which response plan should we activate?

Once you’ve identified what the crisis is, who’s affected, and which plan to activate, you need to alert any employees who are at risk. Using emergency communication software allows you to quickly send notifications through multiple communication channels—such as email, phone calls, text messages, and desktop alerts—to ensure every employee in harm’s way receives the time-sensitive information they need to stay safe.

For example, after a threat is detected and assessed by the Thales Group, it uses its emergency communication system to activate the appropriate response plan within minutes. Judy Weber, Thales Group’s Vice President of Operations adds, “It would be impossible to manually monitor for all the potential threats that could impact every one of our sites. Getting real-time alerts when an incident happens near one of our sites and seeing exactly who might be impacted allows us to act faster in any situation.”

Similarly, when Moss Construction employees in Hawaii were faced with a Category 4 hurricane, the company was able to quickly mobilize its preparedness plan with the help of AlertMedia’s emergency communication technology.

“There’s no way we could have kept our people safe from this Category 4 hurricane without AlertMedia. Email would have taken too long and phone circuits were already faltering. With AlertMedia, we were able to account for and ensure all employees were in a safe location prior to the storm.” —Scott Gerard, Vice President of Environmental, Health & Safety at Moss Construction

3. Response stage (chronic phase)

After your response plan has been activated, the crisis moves into its response stage as you deploy resources needed to address the emergency at hand. Now, your crisis team members are taking action.

How long this stage lasts depends on the type of crisis. For some events, like a snowstorm, this could be a matter of days. For others, like a public health emergency, your response time could be much longer. Few businesses could have predicted that their crisis management teams would still be responding to the COVID-19 pandemic more than two years later.

What to do during the response stage: Take action

By now, you’re dealing with the effects of the crisis and attempting to take control. Depending on the type of emergency, you may need to mobilize emergency response resources, including first responders.

In the event of a hazardous spill in your facility, for example, you need to call 911, evacuate the building, and ensure all employees are accounted for. In the case of an IT outage, you may need to contact service providers to determine service restoration time and decide whether to send employees home to work remotely. One of the greatest dangers following an earthquake is fire from broken gas lines. After the shaking subsides, it’s essential to shut off gas service immediately if you smell gas or suspect a leak to prevent a secondary fire emergency.

During this phase, swift decision-making from stakeholders and your crisis response team will help you effectively manage the situation and mitigate additional risks.

4. Post-crisis stage (resolution phase)

At this stage, the crisis can be considered over as you transition from crisis management back to business as usual. Employees return to work and normal business operations can start to resume. Depending on the type of crisis, this final crisis resolution stage can take days, weeks, or even months.

What to do during the post-crisis stage: Recover

During this crisis phase, you may need to assess and repair damage to buildings or other assets so that the business can start to resume normal operations. The recovery phase should also take into account any impact that the crisis may have had on the mental health and well-being of your employees. They will need to be taken care of and their return to work arranged using suitable timelines for each individual. Should counseling or additional support be required, this should be discussed. If the crisis has involved negative media coverage, your Public Relations department may need to work on rebuilding your reputation.

At the same time, your crisis response team should assess the overall business response to the crisis. Once you’ve evaluated the effectiveness of your response, modifications should be built into your emergency response plans and any relevant information passed on to your employees.

And now, the four-stage cycle moves back into the first, pre-crisis stage as you begin monitoring and preparing for future crises once more.

How and What to Communicate During a Crisis

Communication strategies are a critical aspect of crisis management requiring thought and preparation. During a crisis situation, reactive messaging can do more harm than good. When it comes to effective communication, each stage of a crisis needs a slightly different approach:

Pre-crisis: Demonstrate your preparedness

Before a crisis occurs, your employees will want to know that you’re taking steps to protect them should a crisis hit. Communicate your plans across the organization and run drills to assess their effectiveness. Ask for feedback and adjust your plans as necessary.

Crisis: Alert your team

Now is the time to alert your employees to the threat. Whatever the size of your business, using a mass notification system is an effective way to ensure you can reach affected employees as fast as possible. A solution that enables you to segment messages by location, function, or other relevant attributes is vital to ensuring employees only receive notifications applicable to them. The last thing you want in a true emergency is employees overlooking your message because of notification fatigue.

Response: Communicate and update

The response phase can be fluid, so you’ll need to communicate your plans with employees and liaise with stakeholders as the crisis develops. Any adjustments or adaptations to your plan should be disseminated where necessary. Using an emergency communication platform with event page functionality can help consolidate all event-specific information into one central hub that employees can access whenever they need to.

Post-crisis: Assess and evaluate

Once the crisis is over, your crisis management team should assess and evaluate the response and decide what you would do differently in the future. Feedback from employees can also help inform this stage. Any changes to your crisis management plan or drills as a result of these evaluations should also be communicated to employees.

Crisis Communication Best Practices

During a crisis event, it’s easy for confusion and misinformation to creep in. But a clear, proactive crisis communication plan can help minimize this before rumors or hearsay start to take hold—and ensure your employees always have access to the latest, most accurate information.

Using a multichannel two-way communication solution like AlertMedia allows employees to also share their updates with you, which can and should form an important part of your response. This real-time exchange of information means your staff feel supported and informed as they navigate their way through a crisis—in addition to providing you with valuable, on-the-ground information.

A Framework for Improved Crisis Management

Knowing that the lifecycle of any crisis develops across four distinct phases will help you develop an effective crisis management plan that protects your people and business. With a deeper understanding of the four stages of a crisis—pre-crisis, crisis, response, and recovery— you’ll be able to identify which stage you are in at any moment. As a result, you and your employees will be better equipped to tailor your actions and decisions appropriately, ultimately enhancing safety and business resilience.

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